by Marc Grossman, OD, Lac
"The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patients in the care of the human body, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease."
~ Thomas Edison
When mom and dad told you to eat your carrots because they were good for your eyes, they were on the right track. As researchers continue to document that we really are what we eat, the role of nutrition in eye health becomes clearer and more important all the time.
In working with thousands of patients in my 25 years of practice, I start my eye care prevention and treatment programs with a discussion with the patient regarding their diet. Consider these facts: More than 25 percent of the nutrients we absorb from our food go to nourish our "visual system" - our eyes and all of the nerves, blood vessels and tissues that support our vision. Indeed, the concentration of vitamin C in healthy eyes is higher than almost anywhere else in the body. It is therefore not surprising that proper nutrition plays an important role in preventing and treating problems such as cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma and dry eyes.
The diet plan I recommend emphasizes a variety of whole foods, with emphasis on fruits and vegetables. The body does not use each vitamin and mineral in isolation. The absence of one nutrient can affect the body's ability to use another; for example, proper amounts of magnesium and vitamin D are needed to absorb and utilize calcium efficiently. Without adequate levels of zinc, the body cannot utilize all of the vitamin A it receives. Similarly, the B vitamins are needed together, working best as a team.
Eating a variety of whole foods and omitting processed sugar and other junk foods will help the body get a wide range of nutrients. The body can lose a significant amount of nutrients when we eat nutrient-poor foods. For example, we lose chromium and B vitamins as our body tries to burn white sugar. Therefore, getting our nutrients if possible through healthy foods is key to maintaining good vision.
"A program which includes dietary changes, nutritional supplementation such as omega 3 essential fatty acids, alpha-lipoic acid and vitamin C, and physical exercise have all been shown by research to help lower eye pressure naturally without medication."
So, what foods are the most important for eye health? Fruits and vegetables. One study of over 100,000 people over a 12-18-year span at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that those who ate three or more servings of fruit a day were 36 percent less likely to develop age-related macular degeneration than people who ate less than 1.5 servings per day.
It was also found that lutein and zeaxanthin were some of the most important nutrients to help protect the eye from cataracts and macular degeneration. In the Eye Disease Case Control Study, researchers found a significantly lower risk for developing these eye diseases in people with high amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin in their blood. Also, people who ate a diet with the most lutein and zeaxanthin (as much as 5.8 milligrams per day) had a significantly lower risk for macular degeneration than those whose diet contained the least amount (as low as 1.2 mg per day). Dietary studies confirmed the association between frequent consumption of spinach or collard greens, which are good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, and a reduced macular degeneration risk.
Let me give you some examples of how diet can be used in a preventive program for eye disease. Let's use the eye condition open-angle glaucoma as an example. Glaucoma is the second most common cause of blindness around the world; the condition affects approximately 60 million people. Glaucoma is an eye condition that, over time, can damage the optic nerve, resulting in loss of peripheral vision (side vision), sometimes to the point of blindness if not treated. The damage is due to having chronically high eye pressure (referred to as "intraocular pressure"). Unless evaluated by an eye doctor, most cases of glaucoma have no symptoms associated with it until the person starts to notice a lessening in peripheral vision.
So, let's say you are 56 years old and the eye doctor finds you have borderline high eye pressures of 26 and 27 mm/Hg (normal range is 10 to 22 mm/Hg). At this point, the eye doctor will most likely give you a visual fields test that maps your peripheral vision, and will also check the health of the optic nerve. If your visual field and optic nerve are fine, the doctor will either just monitor it regularly or possibly give medication to lower the pressure. Most eye doctors rarely consider natural ways to lower eye pressure in possibly preventing the need for medication. A program which includes dietary changes, nutritional supplementation such as omega 3 essential fatty acids, alpha-lipoic acid and vitamin C, and physical exercise have all been shown by research to help lower eye pressure naturally, without medication.
Dietary studies confirmed the association between frequent consumption of spinach or collard greens, which are good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, in lowering macular degeneration risk.
Macular degeneration is even more frustrating in terms of eye doctors not prescribing natural approaches. Numerous peer-review studies show that macular degeneration is a disease responsive to specific nutritional protocols. Most of the time, the doctor just says there is nothing that can be done, except possibly lasering the blood vessels that are leaking, in the case of wet macular degeneration. Hundreds and hundreds of studies have shown the benefits of a nutritional program emphasizing the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants, the amino acid taurine, along with the benefits of microcurrent stimulation, to help reduce the risk and decrease the progression of macular degeneration.
Here are some other important wellness recommendations to keep your eyes healthy:
- Don't keep your eyes focused in one place for a sustained period of time. Change your focus. Look up out a window periodically when you're doing close work, to give your eyes a break. Sustained contraction of the eyes can also lead to a contraction of your upper body and neck. Don't stare continuously without breaks, as that causes tension on the visual system, and can contribute to vision problems.
- Get at least 20 minutes of natural sunlight a day. Go for a walk. The eyes are light-sensing organs. It's important to get enough sunlight so that they operate optimally. Wear UV-protective sunglasses to protect your eyes from damaging sun rays.
- Quit smoking! Smokers have a significantly higher risk of eye disease than non-smokers.
- Reduce sugar and alcohol intake.
I hope this information helps you and your patients maintain the precious gift of sight for a lifetime.